Reasonable Suspicion, Probable Cause, and Field Sobriety Tests

A police officer requires “reasonable suspicion” to stop a vehicle and “probable cause” to place a person under arrest for DUI. In reality, however, officers stop and arrest drinking drivers on snap decisions. By using standardized forms and key phrases, however, officers can create compelling narratives to support the stop and arrest decision. These reports frequently appear cookie-cutter, but it passes muster in the courts. A motorist may be stopped for any number of reasons. Officers are taught to stop vehicles for civil infractions and equipment violations while working DUI enforcement, even though those same officers are taught to watch for 24 driving behaviors affiliated with impaired driving. In other words, officers are taught to stop nearly everybody in the hopes of snaring a drinking driver. In a narrative report, the officer might write, “I saw the vehicle swerve out of its lane of traffic on several occasions and noticed at that time that the vehicle’s license plate lights were not operational.” After the motorist is stopped, DUI task force officers are taught to describe numerous signs of consumption, such as the odor of intoxicants, bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, etc. In the narrative report, an officer will note all of the signs of consumption, making it appear obvious that the driver must be drunk. Upon closer scrutiny, however, these various signs of consumption only establish that the driver has consumed alcoholic beverages prior to driving. These signs of consumption are routinely recited to justify further investigation through field sobriety testing. Once the officer has established that the motorist has consumed alcoholic beverages prior to driving, the courts have held that the officer may briefly detain the motorist for field sobriety testing. This is considered less intrusive than a full-blown arrest and a reasonable means to determine whether the amount of alcohol may have impaired the driver’s ability to operate the motor vehicle. Unfortunately, a person’s performance of field sobriety tests may be almost perfect, but officers using the same cookie-cutter descriptions can convincingly describe the motorist as drunk. Despite these failings, the importance of field sobriety testing cannot be ignored. The purpose of these tests is to determine whether the officer has probable cause to make an arrest. The Fourth Amendment guarantees that no person can be arrested without probable cause: ”The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” But what if the officer simply skips over the field sobriety testing process? Here is an interesting example of what can happen: CHICAGO, Dec. 17 (UPI) — A judge in Cook County, Ill., said a Playboy model should not have been arrested by police after being stopped on suspicion of drunken driving. The Chicago Sun-Times said Thursday that Crystal McCahill’s contention that her Jan. 7 arrest was unwarranted was supported by Judge Thomas V. Lyons. Her attorney said the Playboy model was happy with the ruling. “She’s delighted,” said attorney Michael J. Monaco. Monaco said despite police claims, his client did not voluntarily accompany a police officer to a police station in order to take sobriety tests. He insists Playboy’s Miss May 2009 believed she was under arrest at the time. “If he’d done them on the scene and she’d failed them, it probably would have been a different result,” Monaco said of the tests. Police maintain McCahill’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit for drivers in Illinois. The model was stopped by the officer after allegedly driving through a red light on Chicago’s north side, the Sun-Times said. Originally published 18th December, 2009 - Posted by William J. Maze